The consensus opinion among River-to-River Conference Ohio Division coaches is that Herrin and Massac County are the teams to beat in the league this season.
The Tigers return four starters, while the Patriots return all five.
Defending league champ, Murphysboro, is a bit shorthanded with only one returning starter and one expected returnee transferring to Carbondale.
Benton returns four full- or part-time starters. Harrisburg returns three and West Frankfort returns four.
Following is a brief preview of each league team:
Tigers head coach Sayler Shurtz is beginning his sixth season at Herrin. He led the varsity to a 20-7 finish a year ago and second-place finish within the conference to Murphysboro. Both league losses came at the hands of the Red Devils in two closely-contested matches.
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Shurtz welcomes back 6-foot-2 senior forward Haydon Mayer, an All-Conference, All-South and Class 3A Honorable Mention All-Stater. Mayer averaged 15 points, 5.5 rebounds, two assists and two steals per game last season.
Other returning starters include: 6-foot-5 junior post player Jonathan Harrison (7 points-per-game), junior guard Exavier Williams (8 PPG) and sophomore guard Kyrese Lukens (8 PPG), who will switch from shooting guard to the point.
Senior Fox Connor (6-foot-4 post player) saw considerable time with the varsity a year ago as did senior guards Reese Billingsley, Taylor Brandon and Mason Cole. All are vying for the fifth starting slot.
Not to be overlooked are sophomores Madox Billingsley at the guard slot and Grady Cox at forward. Both saw limited varsity minutes as freshmen last year.
The only graduating senior starter from last year was Riley Chrostoski, an All-Conference and All-South guard.
“I thought last year’s team exceeded expectations,” Shurtz said. “The talent was there; we just lacked strength and some experience to make a run in March. Returning four starters is comforting as a coach. It’s all about reps and adapting now.”
Shurtz said talent-wise, the Tigers are as deep a team as he has coached at Herrin.
“It’s a great mix of sophomores, juniors and seniors,” he said. “We are still working on team chemistry and flow of the offense. We have expectations to make a postseason run in 3A.”
Asked who is the team to beat in the Ohio, Shurtz admitted that Massac County and the Tigers are the likely favorites.
“We return a lot of experience and scoring. But every year is a grind. I mean ... we’ve won one conference title since I’ve been here and been one game away two other times. I think that’s a testament to the other coaches in the league we go up against night in and night out. Their accomplishments speak for themselves. You have to game plan, and then if you thought that was enough... game plan some more. I love it, though. It’s great for the conference.”
Herrin opens the season Wednesday at Sesser-Valier and follows up with a run at the Du Quoin Tip-Off Classic next week.
The Patriots, who finished 22-12 a year ago, return all five starters: senior forward Brady Cissell, senior post player Ian Higgerson, senior guard Brody Smallman, junior guard Isaac Hosman, and junior guard Will Harmon.
Of that quintet, both Hosman and Harmon were All-Conference. Hosman was also All-South.
Other members of the varsity include: juniors Jackson Lee and Hunter Box and sophomores Khris Garnett, Jack Turner, Grady Bormann, Nate Eskridge, Josh Fisher, and Ethan Goines.
“We have a lot of experience back and 95% of our points,” said veteran coach Joe Hosman. “It will be an exciting team to watch and we will have a chance to win every game.”
Hosman is now entering his 37th season at Massac County. Over that span of time, he has put together an overall record of 668-337, good for 15th most wins at one school by a head coach in Illinois history.
When adding in his wins at Eldorado where he started his coaching career in 1979, Hosman’s record bulges to 781-421, ninth-best all-time in the state.
Regarding this year’s league race, Hosman said Herrin is the team to beat.
“We have a chance to win it,” he said.
The Patriots open play this week at the Vienna Tournament with games against Eldorado, Meridian, Carrier Mills-Stonefort and Vienna.
Only one starter from last year’s 27-3 team that captured conference and regional titles returns to the Red Devils’ roster this season in 6-foot-1 guard Karmelo Abernathy.
Transferring to Carbondale was senior center AJ Walker. Graduating were: Calvon Clemons, an All-Conference, All-South, and All-State Honorable Mention performer, along with Tyreek Feggins, Alek Abell and Carmello Davis.
Seniors on this year’s Murphy squad include: guard Braylen Agnew, forward Kevin Hale and guard Avery Gaston.
Juniors in addition to Abernathy are forward Keyshaun Wills and guard Tucker Horstmann.
Sophomores on the varsity include: Cade Brooks, Kaden Shields, AJ Boese, Gibson Fager, and Tyjaire Kellum. There are also two freshmen dressing varsity in Myles Guthman and Kemmeon Hale, the tallest player on the squad at 6-foot-5.
“I have very few expectations,” said Red Devils coach Daryl Murphy. “We will be very young at every position. I still feel we can be very competitive. Cade Brooks will take over at the point, replacing Calvon. Caden Shields and AJ Boese will fill two starting spots with our center position up for grabs between Gibson Fager, Keshaun Wills and Kevin Hale all battling it out. Myles Guthman will also help off the bench.”
Murphy is beginning his 26th year as the Red Devils head coach and has earned more than 500 career wins, which also includes a brief two-year stint at Century.
“Abernathy brings great defense and will have to carry the load offensively, as well,” Murphy said of his lone returning starter.
Murphy said Herrin and Massac County are the league favorites.
“They are both really good. We will see how the others fall into place after that,” he said.
The Red Devils open the season in the Ernie Bozarth tournament next week with Murphysboro and Trico serving as the host sites. All games on championship Saturday will be at Murphysboro.
The Rangers finished 16-15 a year ago under head coach Ron Winemiller, now starting his 14th season at Benton and 17th overall as a head coach.
Returning starters include: 6-foot-2 senior guard Landon Croslin, 6-foot junior guard Luke Melvin, 6-foot junior guard Isaac Billington, and 6-foot-7 sophomore post player Docker Tedeschi. Billington will move over to the point.
Other varsity team members include: seniors Nicholas Melvin and Lukas Wilson; junior Evan Munoz; and sophomores Gavin McCann, Grant Owens, Brock Poole, Treyson Severin, Kyle Thomas and Jackson Zettler.
Reid Baumgarte, who graduated, was an All-Conference and All-South guard.
“We return some guys that were pushed into duty last year when we went through some injuries during the middle part of the season,” Winemiller said. “As a result, we got to see those guys in the middle of varsity games in some big situations. They have worked extremely hard during the offseason in the weight room and in the gym to improve their skill level.”
Winemiller likes what he has seen of his ballclub in practices.
“I think that we will have a very competitive team this season, but we are also playing one of the toughest schedules that we have played during my time at Benton,” he said. “I am hoping that will prepare us for postseason play.”
Winemiller said Herrin would look to be the team to beat in the Ohio followed closely by Massac County and Murphysboro.
“It’s very competitive from top to bottom,” he said. “I think we can fight to get in the top half, and if you are in the top half, you have a chance to be there at the end.”
The Rangers open the season at the Goreville Invitational Tournament next week with games against Johnston City, Anna-Jonesboro, Hamilton County, Hardin County and Goreville.
The Randy Smithpeters era is over at Harrisburg. Gone are his 517 wins in 29 years of service.
The new era of Bulldogs basketball is now in the capable hands of Andy Fehrenbacher, who begins his 15th season as a head coach.
Back in the fold for Harrisburg are seniors Myles Crank, Nate Lawrence, Ross Rider, and Andrew Unthank, as well as Salem transfer, Charlie Fehrenbacher.
Juniors include: Cam Ande and Karmello Downey.
Sophomores on the squad include: Dalton Brimm, Darnel Ellis, Adrian Mann, Owen Rann, Reed Rider, Colton Wheeler, and Cayden Young.
Of this varsity group, Crank, a guard, Lawrence, a forward, Ande, a guard, and Fehrenbacher, a forward, all started last year. Harrisburg finished 10-18 last season.
Graduated from the team was All-Conference performer Michael Godsey.
“My expectations for this season would be to work hard, continue to grow as a team and learn to play together every night in both practices and games,” Fehrenbacher said. “The players are still getting to know me and I am getting to know them. It is a process, but I feel we can have a very good season and be successful.”
Fehrenbacher said he likes what he has seen of his squad in the preseason.
We have a lot of different types of players that all bring something a little different to the table as far as skill, athleticism, talent and body types,” Fehrenbacher said. “We have a great core group of juniors and seniors that have shown some excellent leadership so far. As long as everyone buys in and works together pushing toward team goals, there is no reason why we can’t have a successful season. I am very excited about the opportunities that lie in front of this team.”
Fehrenbacher said the Ohio Division of the SIRR is loaded this year.
“I would say Herrin and Massac County both look to be the early favorites near the top, but Murphysboro and Benton will both be very tough to beat, as well,” he said. “West Frankfort is still transitioning, but will be competitive. There are a lot of fantastic coaches in this conference and guys who have been at their respected schools for a very long time, so their programs are well intact.
“I am taking over for a great coach in Randy Smithpeters, who was at Harrisburg for 29 years and built quite a program here,” Fehrenbacher said. “They are big shoes to fill, but I am excited for the opportunity. I feel we can be right in the thick of the conference race this year and we have a good core group of players and a few new faces that will contribute a lot to this team.”
Harrisburg opens the season next Monday at the Ernie Bozarth Invitational Tournament in Murphysboro with games against Lovejoy, Chester, Murphysboro and an undetermined opponent.
The Redbirds, under the leadership of second-year head coach Josh Sertich, are hoping to make some major strides from last season when the team finished 3-25 overall.
Returning starters include: senior guard Cole Buckingham, senior guard Preston King, senior guard Lucas Whittington, and junior forward Keagon Bowers, who is healthy again after an ankle injury sidelined him last year.
Other varsity players include: seniors Jack Hogg, Gage Agnitsch, and Hudson Melvin; juniors DT Thomas and Brady Melvin; and sophomore Eli Tyson.
Both Thomas and Hogg started at various points of last season.
“Hopefully, we will be able to be more competitive and win some more games this year,” Sertich said. “For that to happen, we will have to do a better job taking care of the basketball and defend at a much higher level.”
Sertich said Bowers, when healthy, was the team’s top rebounder a year ago.
“Keagon is a skilled, versatile player for us. He can score inside, drive, handle the ball well, and is our best passer,” the coach said. “He suffered a hand injury late in the football season. We hope to have him ready to go at the start of the season. If he can stay healthy, I think we can have a nice season.”
Sertich added that the offense will be driven by Whittington.
“Lucas led us in scoring last year (11 points-per-game) and also led in steals.
“He is a great athlete, but needs to commit himself to the defensive end of the floor.”
Sertich described King as “a pleasant surprise” last year.
“I knew he would contribute and possibly even start, but he ended up having a nice season (7 PPG) and led us in rebounding. He does a lot of the little things that don’t show up in the stat sheets. He is a solid defender, smart, and plays in different spots for us.”
Sertich also spoke highly of Buckingham.
“Cole averaged 6.8 PPG last year. His great strength is his ability to knock down shots. We need him to be a little more consistent shooting the ball and he needs to improve on the defensive end of the floor.”
Sertich said Massac County, Herrin and Murphysboro should all be considered favorites to win the conference race.
“Massac returns everybody and Herrin returns most of their starters,” he said. “And you can’t count out Murphysboro or Benton. It’s an outstanding conference with a lot of quality teams and coaches.”
The Redbirds opened at Sparta on Tuesday and will travel to Century on Saturday.